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Diary brings a grandmother to life

By Shannon Hengen


My American-born paternal grandmother, of German descent, married my German immigrant grandfather, Christian Hengen, in Illinois in 1887. In 1903, one year after her husband, she and six of their children joined Christian in the Rhineland district of Saskatchewan where they homesteaded and where she bore three more children. Having died in 1946, before I was born, Mary Hengen was only ever a photo to me. And in the photo she looked frightfully serious.

But then, one Thanksgiving weekend recently, my sister and I visited the area where the Hengens homesteaded, driving down the long tree-lined driveway to the house and farm buildings that, though wonderfully familiar, no longer belonged to the family. Determined to “walk the north road” where, according to my sister, Mary and Christian walked every evening together after supper, we asked and were granted permission to do so by the current resident.

“We should tell jokes,” my sister declared as we headed north on foot that lovely October evening. “Jokes?” I asked. The completely serious woman I remembered only from the one formal photo of her and her husband that used to hang in that farm house was, apparently, a joyful storyteller, one who saved the most amusing tales of the day to relate to her husband on those walks. Saying that the revelation of her geniality surprised me is truly an understatement. And yet, “the fruit of the Spirit is . . . joy” (Gal 5:22).

I have held the two images of the woman I never knew in my mind since that north road adventure until this spring when I began to peruse the fragile pages of my Aunt Susie’s diaries from 1916, loaned to me by my cousin, her daughter Dolores Fehr. Susie was one of the six children of Christian and Mary who travelled north from the U.S. to settle in Saskatchewan in the early years of the last century and who, from the age of 15 in 1916 up to her last years early in this century, kept a journal.

I was charmed by the voice of my aunt in those pages. But again, to my surprise, during that first year, 1916, her mother sometimes took up notebook and pen and added her own reflections, occasionally using a German phrase when the English failed. Even Susie’s sister Mary wrote a few lines, of which perhaps the dearest, dated 6 April 1916, is: “what beautiful times we have here.” Susie and their mother, Mary, often echoed those lines.

We know how challenging life on the prairies was 99 years ago. My aunt’s journals record the illnesses and deaths of people and animals, the vagaries of weather and farm machinery, but they also importantly describe how people enjoyed their lives. I learned about music made on a concertina-like instrument, the bandoneon, and favourite card games called King Pedro and Skat. References to cars and motorcycles as well as the gramophone started to appear. We know they worked hard, but do we know how hard they played?

Mary Adams Hengen loved to laugh. Here is her own voice.

Thursday, March 30 (1916) Raymond told us a nice story of what happened in Kipling last night. A couple was going to leave for Brandon to get married there, but they didn’t want anybody to know about it, so the girl was there in time for the Train and of course thought the young fellow went in the train on a sly, but O heavens when the train was gone about a mile, here comes the Groom running for dear life but only could look after that mean train which took his Bride away. But for luck in about ten minutes a Freight train came and took him along. So I suppose they met in Brandon again but Raymond couldn’t hardly tell us from laughing.

I imagine that my grandmother could probably hardly write the story from laughing.

Earlier in that same entry, she writes with such joy: “Father (my grandfather, Christian) has come back from Windthorst and brought those little records home Maggie sent so (her younger sister) Hildas face turned into a smiling star.”

April 2. I was talking to Mrs. R over the Phone, and she was telling me she had the ringworm quite bad on her arm, and after a little while Mrs. E rang us up and asked if I had a sore arm so we had a good laugh over her because she gave herself away that she had been rubbering (listening in on the party line).

April 4. This afternoon Susie (the diarist) went down to the slough to take some water and of course she stept through the snow and ice, went down to her knees. She did the grumbling and we did the laughing. We had her madder than Thunder, but she got over it alright.

April 5th 8 o’clock. Mary is crocheting. Hubert is playing on the Organ. Max and Mat are reading paper. Susie and Willie are playing cards. George and Herman are watching them. Hilda is running forth and back in the house and Father is gone to bed.

April 8. Hilda thinks she is somebody now she can play, Peter Peter Pumpkin eater, on the Organ. Mat and Max practice on the Organ every spare minute they have, so a fellow can think what beautiful times we have here.

My grandmother was an excellent seamstress. April 12. I brought the goods from Mrs. M home to make her Dress. Gee, that will be a swell dress. Tan silk with black silk chiffon overskirt. Some class to that for just an evening Dress. . . . Well they are all gone to bed and so I think its time for me too, for tomorrow morning I will start that grand frock and if that will suit good I guess I will hang out a shingle.

Nineteen springs later, Mary wrote a letter to her children who had moved away to relate sad news, doing so with the same open-hearted kindness, generosity, and understanding of her journal entries. Having received a letter from her daughter Susie telling of the death at birth of her Siamese twin babies, Mary writes on March 22, 1935, from the homestead at Peebles, Sask.: a blessing they were living so they could be baptized. God will take care of them in his own way. So his will be done.

Isaiah 35:10: “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; / they shall obtain joy and gladness, / and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

Hengen is a freelance writer from Sudbury, Ont.